Eric Karjaluoto

A Way to Avoid Clichés

I never understood how to write a song. When I tried, I found myself trafficking in clichés: “I got up this morning…” and that sort of drivel. Most times, these song-attempts centered around my own self-involvement, and imaginary relationships gone bad. It was horrible shit, and I’m grateful no evidence of these embarrassments remain.

My tries at fiction were much the same. My primary frame of reference was in films with themes I knew little of (e.g., crime, betrayal, murder). As such, any fiction I ever tried to write turned out awfully silly. It was only an imitation of someone else’s overwrought tales.

I think this is how we end up with so much bad art. Most of us look at others’ creations, searching for an idea to spark our creativity. But it doesn’t work that way. If you mine the work of others, you end up producing work that’s derivative.

So, you need to instead find something that’s yours, and work from that. Whether you appreciate this fact or not, you possess a unique viewpoint. It’s just that your world is so familiar to you that you don’t realize how unique it is.

In college, I made a painting of Mona Lisa—after she dyed her hair red. I thought this made it somewhat novel, but it wasn’t my cheeky gimmick that most viewers noticed. The part folks paid attention to was the background. I painted a silhouette of pine and spruce trees—common to where I grew up. Others in the class found this notable, because they lived in a different climate (a rainforest). To me, those trees were just trees, but they turned out to be part of my unique visual vocabulary. So, don’t mistake that which seems mundane to you, for actually being so.

Can’t think of a story of your own to tell? That’s OK. There’s another approach: pick a theme/topic. You might choose peaches, battling robots, or even a tragedy at sea. You might not know what you want to say, but that’s not the point. What matters is that you pick an environment. Without doing so, you’ll limit yourself to generalizations. To go beyond the surface, you need to concentrate for a while. This is what a theme helps you do.

A common misconception with this approach is that your chosen theme is too small. In my experience, this is almost never the case. Most matters are richer and more involved that we initially believe. I often see this with blog posts. I frequently start with a simple idea and think it’s not enough for a whole post. By the time I’m finished, though, I tend to run long—and have ideas for later posts. (Sidebar: One of the best ways to get new ideas is to just start working with any idea.)

The same applies to a painting, essay, product, photography, film, game, or what-have-you. The problem with most ideas is that they’re only a degree away from what everyone else is doing. That’s why most pop songs sound so similar. Their makers are manufacturing a product, and mass production (at its best) only achieves efficiency. It almost never leads to a new creation. For that, you need to choose a sandbox—and give yourself time to play.

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